Interview with St Lawrence String Quartet – part 2

Despite the fact that the quartet was born in Canada, and that three of its four members are Canadian, Stanford University has been home to the St Lawrence String Quartet since 1998. They retain their posts as visiting artists at the University of Toronto, and play, they say, almost as often in Canada now as they did in the early 90s, before the Stanford era.

Ironically, the quartet has only spent a year of its collective life in Canada, though violinist St John – who joined the quartet in 2006 – had been a professor at the university of Toronto for the previous seven years.

It was, if Nutall is to believed, an aversion to academic work that sparked the ensemble’s formation. As young graduates, he and founding violinist Barry Schiffman found themselves in a back room lined with text-books taking a theory exam.

“I remember going back and forth to these books and thinking, ‘Do we really want to spend another two years taking these classes? Or do we just want to play?’

Schiffman and Nutall had received study grants from the Ontario Arts Council, and decided to pool their resources, join forces with another two musicians, and form a string quartet. The Arts Council agreed.

“We were really bad for the first six months,” he says. “Terrible! And the more we rehearsed the worse we got. It was really frustrating.”

Then the young ensemble won a place to study with the Emerson Quartet at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, and things began to improve.

“We were lucky,” recalls Nutall. “We got to work with really good people. First the Emerson, then the Juilliard, then the Tokyo string quartet – that was crucial on so many levels to improving. Everybody wanted to help.”

© Shirley Apthorp 2011

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